Cephalosporins discovered in Sewers
23 January 2008
The Discovery of Cephalosporin *
The Professor of Hygiene of the University of Cagliari, Giuseppe Brotzu (1895-1976), wondered why typhoid fever was less virulent in his city than elsewhere. He had formulated various hypotheses, all in vain. One day, while he was passing through the neighbourhood of the bay of "Su Siccu" he saw some young people bathing in the sea , just in the waters where Cagliari sewer system debouches without contracting the disease.
So he took a sample of the water to test its effect on a culture of salmonella typhi. Since it was wartime and there was no meat to make the broth for the culture medium, Brotzu used the placentas obtained from parturient women in the maternity ward, that he then boiled in order to obtain the medium. With the help of his assistant Antonio Spanedda (1907-1998), he isolated a fungus from this water that produced an effective substance against Gram-negative bacteria- (the typhoid is in fact caused by Salmonella Typhi, which like all the enterobacteriae is Gram- negative) however, the fungal extract he had prepared was a raw compound which could not be produced on a large scale. When Brotzu asked for funding from the Italian Committee for research it was not given to him for political reasons since he had previously adhered to Fascism, as did almost all Italian university professors. Moreover, Brotzu dedicated himself less to research because he got more involved in politics, first becoming Mayor of Cagliari and then President of the Region of Sardinia.
During fascist times, Brotzu had already been involved in the fight against malaria. After the war he was a consultant to the Rockefeller Foundation which, thanks to land reclamation and the massive use of DDT, succeeded in eradicating malaria (1950) by eliminating its carrier. Notwithstanding his great merits (for having discovered the cephalosporium he was proposed for the Nobel Prize) he is not usually mentioned in Italian texts, whereas, in contrast, he is named in pharmacological textbooks throughout the world. Brotzu received neither honour, nor money. In fact, he consigned several strains of cefalosporium fungus to an English sanitary official who had come to Sardinia in the anti-malaria campaign. In turn, this official gave the material to Edward Abraham (1913-1999), a student of Fleming, who isolated the cephalosporin. The drug was then sold throughout the world by the pharmaceutical companies Glaxo and Lilly making a good profit for them.